Finding the "golden lining" in the Zimbabwean genocide

RW Johnson
29 July 2012

RW Johnson says the modest agricultural successes described by the NYT were built on the pyre of a virtual holocaust

In 2008 there was a sudden burst of articles by Samir Amin, Mahmood Mamdani and other left-wing Africanists suggesting that Robert Mugabe had been considerably misjudged and that his land reform programme had much to be said for it.1 

Quite what lay behind this clearly concerted ideological offensive other than embarrassment at the international media's treatment of white farmers as the tragic victims of the Zimbabwe crisis, remains obscure. More recently there have been a number of articles also attempting to suggest that the benefits of the "land reform" are at last evident. A notable example is Lydia Polgreen's "In Zimbabwe Land Takeover a Golden Lining" (New York Times, 20 July 2012).

Ms Polgreen attempts to be even-handed, bluntly accepting that for white farmers the whole process has been one of appalling loss and that crop yields today remain far below what was achieved before Mugabe's land-grabs began in 2000. Instead, she focuses mainly on the 60,000 new black tobacco farmers, toiling on tiny plots to produce 330 million pounds of tobacco this last year (still a far cry from the 2000 crop of 522 million pounds). She cites Ian Scoones of Sussex University on the "myth that land reform has been an unmitigated disaster" and the happy comments of the Zanu-PF-supporting black farmers, ending with the questions "But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? These things have value too." Hence the "golden lining".

Ironically, Ms Polgreen's article arrives along with a warning from the World Food Program2 that a new "hunger season" is almost upon Zimbabwe. 1.6 million people are expected to need food assistance - 60% more than during the last hunger season; this because of yet another disastrous cereals harvest of just 1,076,772 metric tons. Although the rainfall has been "erratic", this deficiency would hardly have caused much trouble before 2000 when the white commercial farmers were able to achieve adequate crops even during full-blown droughts, thanks to their sophisticated irrigation technology. The WFP attributes this year's miserable crop to "limited access to agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, a reduction in the planted area, poor farming practices and inadequate crop diversification". The starvation faced by this 1.6 million rather overshadows the happier situation of the 60,000 little tobacco farmers and thus the very limited nature of the "golden lining".

However, to contrast Zimbabwe's recurrent failure to feed itself now with its bumper food exports in the pre-2000 period is merely to show that "land reform" has been achieved at the cost of food security and the wider agricultural economy. The new constitutional draft agreed between Zanu-PF and the MDC effectively acknowledges that the seizure of commercial farming land after 2000 was a simple act of theft, for compensation is now promised - though, doubtless, this will only actually occur if foreign donors are found to foot the compensation bill. Prior to 2000 the World Bank regarded Zimbabwe's commercial farmers as models for Africa in their innovation, productivity and sophistication. All that has been destroyed, which makes it difficult to celebrate the few green shoots one may observe now. But in any case, all such comparisons very largely miss the point.

One must start with the pre-2000 situation. Mugabe had run the economy into debt, quarrelled with the IMF, kicked them out and cut himself off from credit. The economy stalled, unemployment soared amidst growing public disillusion and Mugabe awarded a large cash hand-out to Zanu-PF war veterans which, transparently, the state could not afford. Earlier in the 1990s the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) had repeatedly tried to interest Mugabe in land reform but he had ignored all such initiatives and the whole subject of land reform stayed where it had stalled when the British had earlier pulled out from their initial support when they saw Mugabe was only interested in awarding land to his wealthy cronies.

It was amidst this sour atmosphere of stasis that the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) was born in late 1999. Mugabe had already called a referendum on a new constitution (increasing his presidential powers) for February 12-13, 2000. The MDC, which was as yet unorganized, made no movement to fight the new draft for it was in any case seen as a foregone conclusion that it would pass. In fact it lost by 54.7% to 45.3%.

Closer examination showed that this was despite the fact that the results had been clearly rigged in Mugabe's favour in Matabeleland and perhaps elsewhere too3 Once this was taken into account, Mugabe had lost by at least 60-40 and probably by more: the poll we conducted simultaneously showed a 69-31 majority wanting fundamental change in Zimbabwe.4 

When one took account of the fact that the MDC had hardly lifted a finger in the referendum but that its presence was now rapidly growing amidst the sheer political momentum generated by the referendum result, it was clear that Mugabe was facing a complete electoral rout in the parliamentary elections due in mid-2000. It was as a response to this situation that the land invasions by Zanu-PF thugs, more or less openly organized by Mugabe's secret police, began.

How had Mugabe, long apparently unchallengeable, lost support so massively? Part of the answer is to be found in the survey which the Helen Suzman Foundation did right across Southern Africa in late 1996.5 Nowhere else in the entire region was there such a dramatic contrast between urban and rural sectors as in Zimbabwe. Urban voters had comprehensively lost confidence in the ruling party, while rural voters remained mainly loyal to it. There was not much Mugabe could do about this. It was no surprise that whites had no confidence in Zanu-PF or that the trade unions led by Morgan Tsvangirai had become bitterly opposed to the government, but in the countryside Mugabe not only controlled all sources of news and information but exercised close social control through his manipulation of food supplies during droughts and famines.

In a word, those who failed to support the ruling party did not eat and nor did they get supplies of seeds, fertilizer and implements. However, what the referendum of February 2000 revealed was that there had been a further large shift in opinion, for it was quite clear that the 2.4 million black Zimbabweans who lived on the 4,000 white farms had also transferred their support heavily into the NO column. Foolishly, indeed, the farmers had done little to disguise this fact and had ferried farm workers en masse to the polls where they had cheerfully demonstrated their contempt for the ruling party. With this further large shift in popular support against him, Mugabe looked doomed.

Why were farmworkers and their families so different? In a word, they lived under the protective umbrella of the white farmers who guaranteed that even in the worst drought they and their families would never starve. It was a cozy arrangement. Most farmers only employed one or two hundred farmworkers but allowed them to bring their extended families to live with them on the farms where they were trypically provided not only with food security but farm schools, Aids orphan clinics and so forth.

The fact that the white farmers - in utter contrast with their South African counterparts - felt perfectly easy about having hundreds of Africans living cheek by jowl with them showed only too well how comfortable the arrangement was for both sides. But the key political fact was that Mugabe lacked his usual means of social and political control over the farmworkers and their families, so when they became disillusioned with the Mugabe government they were perfectly free to express their opinions. Not only was this a dagger pointed at the heart of the Mugabe regime but it was obvious that the farmworkers would be bound to spread their dissident opinions among the surrounding subsistence peasantry living on the tribal reserves.

When the farm invasions began both Mugabe and the international media played up events as a collision between white farmers and landless blacks. There was no doubt that the whites were targets: a few were killed, many more were savagely attacked and beaten; and all were robbed. But politically, of course, this was meaningless. There were only 4000 such farmers and everyone knew they had seldom supported Mugabe anyway. But the main target was the farmworker population, on whom Mugabe now took a terrible revenge.

At one farm after another the farmworkers were corralled - grannies and babies too - into a farm building were they were ceaselessly beaten as they were made to sing Zanu-PF songs. This would go on for days on end and often the workers would be made to beat one another. Sometimes they were tortured with red hot metal or burning plastic dripped onto naked flesh, sometimes workers would be killed in front of the others to provide an example.

It was a hell which sometimes went on for weeks and of which the great continuous theme was that they must never again, upon pain of torture and death, go against the will of Zanu-PF. No white farmer or his family that I ever spoke to doubted that their own ordeal was as nothing compared with what their workers were put through.

At the end of this these workers and their families, often in an emaciated and traumatized state, were simply cast loose upon the roadside verges. The new owners of the farms - usually Zanu-PF high-ups - seldom wanted to farm properly and just treated their new properties as holiday homes where they parked their wives while enjoying their mistresses in town.

So there were few jobs for farmworkers and when they existed they quickly found that they were expected to work twice as hard for a fraction of the pay they had enjoyed in the past. Later, when I tried to ascertain what had happened to this group - a whole 20% of the Zimbabwe population - it was very difficult to understand their plight fully. Their death rate had been extraordinarily high - they were suddenly deprived of food, all their support services and of any idea what to do.

Naturally, the farm schools and Aids clinics were all smashed. Some were HIV+ and soon died. Others - especially the old and the small children - died of exposure and lack of food. But many seemed to die of sheer exhaustion and despair: they simply had no idea of how to fend for themselves in this hostile new environment. One often heard of people who just laid down and refused to move, bereft of any reason to live.

The attempt, in effect, was to annihilate a whole demographic segment - 20% of the population. Inevitably, some stragglers survived and gradually established themselves on the fringe of urban squatter camp life. These were the very same elements who were targeted once again in 2005 in Mugabe's "murambatsvina" (clear out the rubbish) campaign, when some 700,000 shacks and livelihoods were destroyed, affecting some 2.4 million people.

I later attempted to track what had happened to the victims of this campaign by going through local missionaries who had tracked the fate of their parishes. In the Harare area the death rate reported among those affected was 1 in 2. In the Bulawayo area it was 1 in 3. If one averages that figure at two in five, one comes up with a figure of something like 480,000 dead. Everyone agreed that this figure included a large number of ex-farmworkers and their families. Thus the murambatsvina campaign of 2005 seems to have finished off what the farm seizures of 2000 had begun.

This is what one has to remember. Only now is a new census planned and we may soon at last glimpse the true size of the genocide Mugabe has visited upon his fellow-citizens, though it will not be easy to gauge, for so many have also fled into exile. But have no doubt that well over a million farmworkers and their family members died, many of them in desperate and horrible circumstances. This, then, is what has to be remembered most about Mugabe's "land reform".

This is not to say that we should not be happy to see 60,000 small tobacco farmers flourishing today. We can, to be sure, regret that Mugabe did not agree to such an initiative in the 1990s, which could have avoided all the violence. But above all we have to remember that the very modest successes of today's Zimbabwean agriculture are built on the pyre of a virtual holocaust.

It is a bit like celebrating the (extremely modest) successes of Soviet agriculture in the 1950s without paying heed to the millions of productive kulaks annihilated on the very same land in the 1930s. So while there is nothing wrong with Ms Polgreen's article as it stands, one should not forget the absent and more productive farmworkers who died to make all of this possible.

RW Johnson


1See for example Mamdani's "Lessons of Zimbabwe: Mugabe in Context", London Review of Books, 4 Dec.2008 and my reply in the subsequent issue.

2WFP Press Release 27 July 2012.

3See RW Johnson, Political Opinion in Zimbabwe 2000, Helen Suzman Foundation (Johannesburg) March 2000.


5See RW Johnson, The Condition of Democracy in Southern Africa: Political Attitudes in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Helen Suzman Foundation, 1997).

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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 responses to this article

60000 Tabacco Farmers ???? planted only 11000 Hectares (See Zimbabwe Monthly Economic Review - http://www.zimtreasury.org/downloads/932.pdf) That is an average of 180 square meters of Planted Tabacco per Farmer.

by John Sailor on July 29 2012, 22:55
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Lets just see the successes of Zimbabwe in perspective
It is tobacco planting. What does a person need to cultivate tobacco? A truck, fertilizer and some tobacco seeds? Sees are planted, harvested and then speared onto sticks, six plants a stick and hung in a curing barn to dry. It is not an expensive . .more

by Nasdaq7 on July 29 2012, 23:25
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...I have it from EDDIE CROSS MP (MDC NEC Member) that the former Minister responsible for PENSIONS assures him that Zim State Pensions were re-introduced FEB-2009.... and are being paid from funds budgeted therefor.

Therefore, you would . .more

by John Austin on July 29 2012, 23:41
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land reform
president mugabe is a hero the man has transform zimbabwe from 4000 colonist invaders to over 60000 farmers in a fue years zimbabwe will be one of the richiest country without colonist criminals south africa will have to reform as well zimbabwe is a . .more

by derio on July 30 2012, 05:11
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racist criminals
What can one say about the zanu/anc racist criminals except that they are all D-POS?
Disg..(add your own word)- Pieces Of S***. They are also of course H-POS as in Hopeless or M-POS as in Murderous. But have you noticed a common thread?

by tsumer on July 30 2012, 05:36
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@ Derio
jah live?

first words of Bobs first song :" judge not before you judge yourself"

and as i am not as angelic as the rest, you really are a d-pos.

and stop speaking the queens english and go read a shona book or something.

by Eddie on July 30 2012, 07:02
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planting tobacco
Wouldn't it have made more sense to plant food? Aren't sensible people against smoking? SA politicians want to ban smoking outright.

by jelry on July 30 2012, 07:49
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Let the peasants eat tobacco.
And of course it is wonderful that so many Zimbabwean small farmers are at last in business growing tobacco, and that their not insubstantial cash earnings will help them pay for their family necessities - but what is there is no food in the country to . .more

by Acid Mind on July 30 2012, 08:04
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I thought I was the only one who'd noticed the recent insidious justification of Mugabe's agrarian genocide - thank you RW Johnson for this accurate, objective comment. Let's not forget that Mugabe has the dubious distinction of being responsible for . .more

by Argus Eye on July 30 2012, 08:10
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Could Dagga be a more profitable crop?

by Derionomics on July 30 2012, 08:10
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RW Johnson is a propagandist
He does not appear an analyst nor a scientist but a propagandist. He says: "Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) had repeatedly tried to interest Mugabe in land reform but he had ignored all such initiatives and the whole subject of land reform stayed where it . .more

by Lwi on July 30 2012, 08:40
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Necessary demise?
Dispossessing a few thousand "golden gees" whites while beating and killing a few of them, obviously made Mugabe a major hero of African nationalists, as well as to some of their leftist apologists.
If over a million fellow Blacks were thoroughly . .more

by Injala Apera on July 30 2012, 09:25
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We are the only nation on this earth that voluntarily dismantled it's nuclear weapons. For what? So we can be murdered, and robbed by human-locusts from central Africa? The world owes us an apology. They have a responsibility to give us back everything we . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 09:51
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@give us the land you do not want
I agree the only way out of this mess is to give us our own land. Where we can live with people who can be trusted. For centuries black people have fought with black people trying to steal land from each other. it is time that the rest of the world . .more

by Donkervlie on July 30 2012, 10:27
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Welcome back!
I've missed you JR!

by John Galt on July 30 2012, 12:48
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by John on July 30 2012, 10:55

You really should pay attention to the FOOLISH MUTE.

His nomme de guerre is totally apt & what he spouts reflects, sadly, what the povo have been led to believe. In the mind of the "majority" a pale skin does not qualify as . .more

by John Austin on July 30 2012, 13:00
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genocide in Zimbabwe
If you have evidence of this you should report it to a policeman.

by . on July 30 2012, 13:24
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@John Austin
I agree with you, except that is not too late. But will that make a difference? Probably not. I suspect that generations in the future will look back and shake their heads and wonder why. It'll be like Jews asking themselves why they didn't fight against . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 13:39
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@John Austin ... furthermore
Whatever happens, and whatever the world allows to happen, must also be applied to every continent on the planet. For starters, if whites are not "true Africans" but every other race automatically is as long as they're anti-white, then we need to apply . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 13:51
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Viva, Food Aid Viva!

by Brett on July 30 2012, 14:27
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What to make of " ." as a correspondent's name?
Is the " . " a fool stop, or a dot, or a P****? Judging by his contributions the latter is most apt.

by Mute Fool on July 30 2012, 14:47
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by John on July 30 2012, 13:51
and @MuteFool re Dot.

Firstly, concerning Dot. There is more than one of them on POLITICSWEB - all of them claiming the others to be "fakesters". Default wisdom informs one to regard ALL DOTs as "fakesters" and simply ignore them (unless you have . .more

by John Austin on July 30 2012, 15:26
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"genocide in Zimbabwe"
"If you have evidence of this you should report it to a policeman."

WTF? have you gone soft in the head, Dottie old chap? Report it to a policeman here in sunny SA? Surely you jest...?

by Marc V on July 30 2012, 16:24
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@John Austin
Scripture counsels too that "There is a time for peace, and a time for war. A time for gathering stones, and a time for throwing them." War is not something you start, it is something you resort to when there is no other option. I just think that if . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 17:01
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@John Austin
Besides John, the World Wars were won in the previous century. No one wanted them. Maybe the Poles, French, English, Russians etc. should just have fled?

by John on July 30 2012, 17:04
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@John Austin
The thing we need to fear the most, is not our enemies -- it is our apathy.

by John on July 30 2012, 17:13
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RW -- One has to take the following...
...on the website of Australian prime ministers also into account when assigning blame:

"In August 1979 Fraser attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Zambia. At this meeting, and the follow-up at Lancaster House in London later . .more

by JVR on July 30 2012, 17:37
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RW -- One has to take the following... (2)
I wrote the above, RW, because of the humanitarian catastrophe that was created in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe, and which you wrote about above.

Since the rise of ZANU-PF was directed and since Mugabe was enabled by the Commonwealth, with . .more

by JVR on July 30 2012, 17:48
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The actions by Australia will unfortunately come back on their own heads. The survival of "whites" in Australia is directly linked to the survival of white people in both Rhodesia and South Africa. They don't seem to realise that. There is a glimmer of . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 18:09
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Mr John, I do not give a hoot about the whites....
Mr John

I do not care so much about the whites here or there or really anywhere.

I am merely pointing out that the humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because people, including prime minister . .more

by JVR on July 30 2012, 18:31
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@JVR - re-AUSTRALIAN-refuge.....

....destination of choice for the Southern African white tribes.

Regarding your proposal that "Australia should take, say 1 million Zimbabwean refugees in the next couple of years", I think you will find the Aussies are already way ahead of . .more

by John Austin on July 30 2012, 19:32
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colonist go home
you are such a F****** idiot get the hell out of africa and go back to europe which land did you gave up you scum go back home or their will be laws and laws and your A** will end up in jail what F****** central africa are you talking about . .more

by delono on July 30 2012, 23:04
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Africa is Africa, like Asia is Asia. Who are the "Asians" in Asia that have automatic right to Russia, China, India, Koreas etc? The mongolians? Your view is based on nothing else but anti-white racism. Seriously, turkey, if you want to understand what . .more

by John on July 30 2012, 23:37
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@John Austin
I understand what you're saying...hope you're going to be okay, mister.

by John on July 30 2012, 23:39
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Hello? You there whitey?
The international media is the number one enemy of white people. Any adult white person who hasn't cottoned onto this by now ought to be classified as a zombie.

by Cap'n Haddock on July 31 2012, 09:28
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If they don't do what you're suggesting, JVR, then I predict that Australians will find themselves in the position we're in in this country within five years. I know that seems like a very short time, but they have shown the seeds of anti-white racism in . .more

by John on July 31 2012, 10:43
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Thanks Delono
@ Delono. I teach communication, so your racist outburst above has provided me with an excellent example for my students of a subjective, poorly thought out response devoid of structured coherent argument with limited vocabulary. Thank you for the example.

by Argus Eye on July 31 2012, 10:50
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Take a dump on Bob.
Exactly as the subject line says. I am waiting for this day. Bob has ruined the country, the economy and the people. Hopefully, when he dies, they will not mark his grave in any way, as an African we must forget we ever had such a horrible person by this . .more

by THE BROWN MAN on July 31 2012, 13:17
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Bitter Whites
Why are all these whites still bitter about things that happened in 2008? It's all in the past now. 4 years after they were kicked off their farms they still moan how their lives were ruined. Why can't they just move on and pull themselves up by their . .more

by Zog on July 31 2012, 14:11
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Zog means Thick?
You entirely missed the point of Johnson's article, which is that however rough the white zim farmers got it, the REAL victims were their 2 million plus black farmworkers whose deliberate genocide (1/2 m ?) by Mugabe Ms Polgreen so blithely . .more

by Questor on July 31 2012, 15:54
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1 mill f.workers killed???
U say 1 million farm workers killed? This is the problem with getting stats from whites only pubs. Just keep watching us zimbos & we will shine even tho your attempts to hold is down will continue. Pls remember that our current succeses in tobacco growing . .more

by rob on July 31 2012, 19:26
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Zimbabwe's future
All the clever Zimbabweans of all hues have flown the nest. The fools remaining will end up as virtual slave labour on the new colonialist's mines and soya farms. Mark my words Rob the confident Zimbo.

by Tshindi on July 31 2012, 22:24
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I'm just amused how whites always say blacks have no excuse to be poor or marginalized because apartheid ended 22 years ago. Here we have whites feeling all messed up because (as you corrected me), they were dispossessed 10-12 years ago.
I guess now . .more

by Zog on August 01 2012, 01:15
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I tried to follow the reasoning here, but failed to see whether the underlined message has been picked up.

I also might be too late to comment.

The first post did maths (although misplaced) and then the ramblings ...

On average . .more

by Qualm on August 14 2012, 15:48
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farm seizures
What about the properties that were purchased LEGALLY after the war? The Mugabe inspired mobs gobbled them up as well. A once proud and prosperous country reduced to a poor communist backwater ruled by corrupt fat cats. Don't let the 'successes' trumpeted . .more

by John on January 13 2013, 21:44
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